Thursday, September 15, 2016

An opening night of opulence to austerity with Andrea Chénier under McVicar's microscope at San Francisco Opera

When the curtain was raised for the opening performance of San Francisco Opera's new production of Umberto Giordano's Andrea Chénier, Act I's opulent palatial salon setting shimmering in crystal and gold must have overwhelmingly gratified the well-dressed and gowned patrons in attendance for the 94th season opening gala. The ornate War Memorial Opera House too looked splendid, decked out in festoons of red, white and blue, lending as much to patriotic fervour alongside a rousing rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" as to the opera's 18th century French Revolution setting.

Yonghoon Lee as Andrea Chénier
Warm words of welcome came from incoming General Director, Michael Shivlock. And when the name of the company's Music Director and conductor was sorted out after another high profile company representative simply forgot who it was, Maestro Nicola Luisotti, unfazed, responded with music rich in poetry, texture and beauty crafted by comforting and precise playing by the San Francisco Opera Orchestra.

In this co-production with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (in which Jonas Kaufmann performed the title role) and National Centre for the Performing Arts, Beijing, it took tenor Yonghoon Lee's arrival as Andrea Chénier, in his San Francisco Opera debut, to spark up the stage and rectify the poor projection from some preceding principals. Lee set himself apart almost immediately with his immense vocal engine.

As the steadfast poet Chénier, Lee showed beautiful gradation of the voice with phrasing that drew the listener in with every breath interval. When he reached fortissimo heights, Lee did so with thrilling intensity without ever overexerting. When the initially reluctant Chénier makes his poetic declamation shaming the aristocracy for the sufferings of the poor in "Un dì all' azzurro spazio" Lee delivered it with impact that sang out to our own modern day privileged sector of society.

And while the spectacle of Robert Jones's lavish sets and Jenny Tiramani's sumptuous period-perfect costumes dazzled under Adam Silverman's crisp, effective lighting (though sometimes coming across too sharply lit in Acts II and III), the narrative feels piecemeal as it seesaws between the political and personal without feeling dramatically complete. As the opulence gives say to austerity, I was, however, struck with a delayed appreciation in the way director David McVicar approached the work.

Anna Pirozzi as Maddalena di Coigny
We presume a convincing portrayal of love will unfold between Chénier and the aristocratic daughter of the Contessa di Coigny, Maddalena, who soprano Anna Pirozzi, also making her house and American debut, rendered with a rich and lustrous tone. Pirozzi shaped a light and clean top and pushed to high-geared power while maintaining purity of tone in Act II's duet with Lee. Then in Act 3's "La mamma morta", the voice streamed with emotive wealth, not at all showing any sign of sickness despite the pre-performance announcement.

Complications arise with the di Coigny estate servant-cum-revolutionary leader Carlo Gérard, who has long loved Maddalena and drives the tragedy forward in the ensuing upheaval. As Gérard, baritone George Gagnidze (principal number three in their San Francisco Opera debut), brought rich dimension and authority to his character, his deep oaky resonance and vocal fluidity increasingly making their mark along the way.

But Chénier's love seemed unreciprocated by Maddalena as expressed by the subtleties and chemistry at play and, though incredulous, perhaps McVicar's re-examination of Luigi Illica's libretto was saying something very different to expectation. With Chénier's choice not to flee Paris after losing the favour of the revolutionaries by denouncing Robespierre, Maddelena, broken and desperate, loses her safe haven after his subsequent conviction of death. You get the sense that Madalena is more willing to go to the guillotine to release herself from a life in semi-hiding that punishes her than from her loosely expressed love for a now doomed Chénier. If I'm wrong, it at least felt more gratifying to see it this way.

George Gagnidze as Carlo Gérard
The stage wasn't short on other memorable performances. Schemingly lurking and nimbly prancing about, Joel Sorensen brought great individuality to his role as the spy, L'Incredible. David Pershall's solid bass braced Chénier's robustness with authority as his friend Roucher.

J'Nai Bridges gave fulsome mezzo-soprano depth and sympathetic heart as Maddelena's maid Bersi, Robert Pomakov was a sturdy Mathieu and Catherine Cook's haughty Contessa di Coigny entertainingly tickled with acerbic tone of voice that matched her offside condescending expressions.

Accompanied with animated assuredness, the San Francisco Opera Chorus provided excellent vocal balance and it was hard not to tell that the San Francisco Opera Dance Corps, distinguished in style, weren't singing along too as the total effect bonded so seamlessly.

There's so much on offer on the musical, vocal and visual front to make up for Andrea Chénier's bumpy narrative journey. McVicar even gives it a little more worth to look at it further under the microscope.

San Francisco Opera
War Memorial Opera House
Until 30th September

Production photos: Cory Weaver

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Nagambie Lakes Opera Festival excites with a fine festival vintage

The richness of expression opera can achieve feels a perfect match in a setting where a tiny fruit is transformed into great complexity. Spread across three landmark wineries, Fowles, Mitchelton and Tahbilk in central Victoria and packaged strongly by Festival Artistic Director Linda Thompson, there was noticeable structural improvement, subtle new complexities and added maturity in this 2016 festival vintage, the second Nagambie Lakes Opera Festival.

Raphael Wong and Alexandra Lidgerwood, Bastien et Bastienne
At Fowles's serviceable Wine Shed, what a thrill it was to meet Bastien et Bastienne (1868), a little work written when Mozart was just twelve. How he could look at young lovers' games and write with melodious maturity!

Though bare-staged, Greg Carroll's vivid, bravely ill-mannered and lively direction and Pam Christie's crisp piano accompaniment will keep the one-act singspiel alive in memory. As a pair of soft-punk hotheads, Alexandra Lidgerwood's bright peachy-voiced Bastienne and Spencer Chapman's light, mellifluously sung Bastien made a lightning and convincing duo, both having no qualms in cheekily engaging the audience. Raphael Wong provided superb heavyweight baritone resonance as the cloaked soothsayer, Colas.

Three contemporary Nano-Operas highlighted just how effective opera can beautify and brace simple storytelling, strangely enough, even when the text is not clear. Sometimes we can add our own, as in composer Katy Abbott-Kvasnica's The Domestic Sublime (2011)It wasn't often clear what soprano Alexander Ioan was singing about from Chris Wallace-Crabe's text but as she ironed and folded clothes and sat down to a cup of coffee, she did so with intoxicating force and a limpid effortlessness while her voice floated breathtakingly to the ears.

Composer Natalie Williams showed her diversity of style with two works. The first, Puddle of Youth (2013), gleamed under Greta Nash's smart direction together with Wendy Grose and Karen Van Spall's eccentric and heartwarming portrayal of old friends Gladys and Estelle. When Gladys is confronted with Estelle's fear of drowning in the fountain of youth, a clam-shaped kiddies pool which Michael Lampard exotically presides over, she decides friendship is more important than the promise of youth.

Williams's second work, Tuesdays with Pictures (2015), to a libretto by Madeleine St Romain, is a story about three para-natural private investigators (Elizabeth Chennell, Lisa Parker and Joshua Erdrlyi-Gotz) who believe they can cleanse a couple's house of ghosts (Allegra Giagu and Spencer Chapman). Realised with black and white gothic darkness, the polished performances weren't enough, however, to shine insightfulness on the work.

A short and informative Q&A session followed with the two composers hosted by Adrian McEniery, Williams outlining how Puddle of Youth was composed in 12 hours alongside the librettist Vynne Meli, then given 12 hours in rehearsal and subsequently performed. Winner of the Atlanta Opera 24-hour Composition Competition 2013 and the most enjoyable of the three works presented, it showed and shocked with what sharpness and quality can be achieved under pressure.

Quite the highlight on the first full day was the thoughtful direction from Greg Eldridge and the strong cast assembled for Leonard Bernstein's dark Trouble in Tahiti (1952). In a simple but effectively furnished staging in Fowles's Wine Shed incorporating bedroom, living room, kitchen and office in a 1960s setting, Eldridge gives heroic resolution to the story of a bickering couple whose relationship has withered.

Patrick MacDevitt, Hadleigh Adams, Raphael Wong and Desiree Frahn,
Trouble in Tahiti
As an exasperated Dinah, you found the lusciously hearty and pure-toned soprano Sophie Yelland staring at her audience as if pleading through a camera lens. Hadleigh Adams brought an aggravating tension to the drama with his deeply cavernous and adrenaline-rich baritone. The two matched each other in power and a feeling for their roles that was nothing less than impressive, with Scene IV's "Well, of all people" given a powerfully poignant interpretation of their accidental lunchtime street encounter in which they lie about having appointments.

Desiree Frahn, Patrick MacDevitt and Raphael Wong threaded through the domestic tension with well-sung cheesy appeal as the satirical trio. Inconspicuously from the side, conductor Matthew Toogood led a band of seven providing plump musical support, if at times bearing too heavily on the voices.

On Saturday night, wine glasses were filled and emptied in jubilant surroundings as part of a three-course, three-chef-prepared gourmet dinner for around 150 guests at Mitchelton for a gala evening entitled Losing the Plot. Hosted by the festival's Music Director, conductor Brian Castles-Onion giving a spicy and unconventional insight into the arias and ensembles presented, some big names and exciting newcomers in Aussie opera entertained in style.

Amongst the smorgasbord of talent, soprano Desiree Frahn impressed with "Quando m'en vo" from La Bohème. Of soprano Natalie Aroyan's two main course arias, her "Ritorna vincitor" from Aida was truly victorious. Soprano Sophie Yelland extended her splendid run with a sublimely luminous "Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix" from Samson et Dalila and baritone Michael Lewis provided an ample tasting and brute emotion for his following day's performance with "Pietà, rispetto, amore" from Macbeth. Guest artists Dimity Shepherd, Alexandra Ioan, Michael Lapina, Andrew Moran and Hadleigh Adams all added their own fine vocal and theatrical signatures and the entire festival ensemble came together marvellously, concluding with Natalie Aroyan and Michael Lewis leading "Libiamo ne' lieti calici" from La Traviata. Everyone no doubt drank to that.

On Sunday, in the imposing Barrel Hall at Tahbilk Winery, the reaction was thunderous for soprano Desiree Frahn as Stephanie and mezzo-soprano Dimity Shepherd as Anne in the Australian premiere of Jake Heggie's one-act 40-minute opera, To Hell and Back (2006).

Desiree Frahn and Dimity Shepherd, To Hell and Back 
Part of the beauty in the vocal writing revealed in this short work is the robust support the mezzo soprano line gives to the soprano, seemingly mimicking the confronting story of one woman's survival after violent spousal abuse thanks to her mother-in-law. In this one-off performance, Shepherd's foundation-firm and luscious tone bonded powerfully with Desiree Frahn's achingly expressive and cleanly cut soprano. Costumed in bright floral printed dresses and performing in a pristine white-curtained stage surround on a white stage floor, intended or not, the at-odds aesthetic/emotional association spoke loudly of abuse's insidious impact on the purity of souls.

In the final work of the weekend, a faultless cast blasted Mitchelton's Underground Cellar with chilling force in a world premiere, The Scottish Opera (2016). Arranged by Peter Stopschinski and directed and designed by Luke Leonard, this 80-minute work is a gripping, shortened and stylised meshing of Verdi's Macbeth. Seemingly set in a post-industrial construction site, with Alison Heryer's costumes showing the kilted Scots wearing toolkits in place of the sporran and fitted with status-bearing hard hats, a testosterone-charged climate prevailed.

Lighting pulses accompanied a total effect that included eerie projected soundscapes which, together with a storm of voice and music, resonated through the darkness with 'Sensurround'-like intensity as each scene bled intriguingly to the next. Only in the final moments as Macbeth is ambushed did the theatrical impact wane in an otherwise handsome production.

Stopschinski's percolating arrangement for just seven out-of-sight musicians, including Geoffrey Morris on electric guitar, conveyed the essence of Verdi's score remarkably with Warwick Stengards conducting with passion.

Michael Lewis and Linda Thompson, The Scottish Opera
In the title role, Opera Australia regular Michael Lewis mirrored Macbeth's soul with haunting power together with measures of anguish and vulnerability while contouring his robust and expressive baritone sensationally with the text.

Artistic Director Linda Thompson led by example with a fine portrayal of Lady Macbeth. With cold-faced and calculated manner in calmly assessing her domain, Thompson displayed a fearsome elegance and sung with a confident, rich and easy flight across her soprano, demonstrating too a pleasing coloratura. Amongst the many fine performances, Michael Lapina impressed, raising his immense coiling tenor with fearsome excellence as Macduff, as did the smooth stony bass of Michael Lampard's commanding yet apprehensive Banquo.

For those who saw last year's eerily stylised The Difficulty of Crossing a Field by David Lang, you'll recognise Leonard's edgy choreographed directorial style, and it's easy to imagine these two works paired alongside each other in what would be a deeply rewarding double bill.

Finally, at the Tahbilk Barrel Hall, I haven't forgotten the nonsensical comic jaunt that came with Gilbert and Sullivan's Thespis (1871), in an arrangement based on the duos first 'lost' collaboration. While the gods, ruled by Jupiter, were losing popularity, I was losing interest in this festival anomaly. A few good numbers couldn't help but raise spirits, the community chorus sang along capably and enthusiastically with a sumptuously dressed troupe of thespian aesthetes and Max Gillies's doddery Jupiter and Adrian McEniery's perfectly refined Thespis did the trick, but the marvellous merry-go-round momentum of quality Gilbert and Sullivan operetta didn't show.

And after all that I might be souring the grapes by pooh-poohing frequent references made to the festival as being world-class. Certainly some world-class performances graced the wineries but one ought to be celebrating these early years for the ideas, growth and humble beginnings before adding world-class labels to a festival. The hard work that goes into staging it and the already fine results are by no means going unappreciated. The challenge lies in padding it out and getting it noticed.

The Nagambie Lakes Opera Festival is over for 2016 already but it's bound to return in 2017 with its admirable mix of seasoned professionals and young artists. Let's then drink to the festival's future! For that, the continued generous support given by the local wineries and the wider community is instrumental.

Nagambie Lakes Opera Festival
2nd-4th September 2016
Mitchelton, Tahbilk and Fowles Wineries

Production photographs: Lyz Turner-Clark

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble's clear-sighted concept and beautiful singing give Manon flesh in New York

French composer Jules Massenet's Manon is a large undertaking but that didn't prevent one of New York's little players, dell'Arte Opera Ensemble, from giving it a beautifully sung and insightful production. As part of a two-week season entitled Violetta and her Sisters, Manon was presented with La Traviata at Baruch College Performance Arts Centre's Rose Nagelberg Theatre in midtown Manhattan.

Olivia Betzen as Manon and the dell'Arte Opera Ensemble cast
Director Victoria Crutchfield's concept not only shows intellect and vision but she gives it dynamic heart and well-handled form. Nina Bova's beautifully realised 18th century costumes did much to enhance Courtney Nelson's simple platformed set design featuring modern bits of furniture disguised by hints of classic styling and cutout props. The overall visual effect was assisted by Mary Ellen Stebbin's astute, dramatic lighting.

Premiering at Paris's Opéra-Comique in 1884, the five-act tragedy is based on the 1731 novel L’histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut by the Abbé Prévost. Pronunciation of Henri Meilhac and Philippe Gille's French libretto was a little raw in dialogues but on most accounts French singing parts hit the ears admirably.

In Crutchfield's interpretation, Manon appears as a young, perhaps 1970s dressed woman who we encounter during the overture, peering longingly at an elegantly gowned mannequin through a large LED-lit frame, a shop window of sorts. Once she steps through, the fairytale begins but Manon's desire to live the look of high status is dependent on the men who'll pay for it. Little forgiveness is afforded her as the fairytale ends tragically before she has barely entered womanhood.

Olivia Betzen as Manon and Sean Christensen as des Grieux
In her subtle turn of the head and steeling glances as she eyes the Chevalier des Grieux, soprano Olivia Betzen gave immediate clarity to the 16 year-old Manon, who is sent off to a convent because, we're told, she enjoys herself too much. Was she unruly? Perhaps. Was she morally wayward? Perhaps not yet. Was she gifted with the quality to explore her world? Most definitely.

Betzen swung from episode to episode with telling gestural finesse and she gained more and more expressivity in her voice as the sometimes coquettish, playfully laissez-faire and self-conscious Manon needed. The top of the voice smoothened as the acts went by but Betzen's final act of portraying Manon's despair and surrender was as complete as you could want.

With aristocratic stiffness mixed with impassioned impetuousness as Des Grieux, tenor Sean Christensen gushes with charismatic vocal warmth. As a young artist who you can see stepping out successfully onto a larger stage, at least on this one, Christensen's Des Grieux was sensitive, confident and mature while giving credibility alongside Betzen's Manon.

Sean Christensen as des Grieux and Nick Webb as Comte des Grieux
Stan Lacy was an impressive, oaky, resonant-voiced presence and powered meaning through the text as Manon's brawny cousin Lescaut. In other fine performances, as Comte des Grieux, des Grieux's father, Nick Webb brought robust authority, Nobuki Momma distinguished himself as Brétigny and Andrew Surrena stood tall as the crafty and vengeful Guillot. Fine feminine cavorting accompanied Kristina Malinauskaite, Perri Sussman and Hilary Grobe's cheeky huddling as the three actors Poussette, Javotte and Rosette.

A 19-piece orchestra set to the side of the stage area played expertly under Music Director and conductor Chris Fecteau's considered music-vocal balance. For its good size, however, the strings could have provided greater richness of sound.

With the audience numbering less than 100, I was wondering where the almost 4,000-strong audience members at the Met disappear to when there's so much more opera to get closer to in a production such as this. It's easy to take for granted the spectacle such as one sees at the Met, like its own lavish Manon which was last staged just this year. Here, dell'Arte Opera Ensemble inspires, like so many of its kind around the world, because it shows just how much hard work is involved in getting there.

Production Photographs: courtesy of dell'Arte Opera Ensemble